Never have I seen an exercise EXPLODE like the deadlift.
I frequent several gyms that had members queuing for machines, to members queuing up Olympic bars.
While I think it’s a huge step forward (minus the unnecessary weight slamming and cringe-worthy technique), there are several misconceptions that needs addressing when it comes to the “The King of All Exercises”.
It is not “The King of All Exercises
The conventional deadlift is like coconut oil, chia seed, bulletproof coffee in the realm of exercises. People think it cures cancer, gives you immortality and shit.
However, to call it a MUST DO exercise is far from true.
Before adding an exercise into your routine, the #1 question to ask: “What is the purpose of this exercise in relation to my training goal?”
To Build Muscle?
The conventional deadlift is not the best leg (hamstring), back (latissimus dorsi, rhomboid) or butt (gluteus maximus) builder. It is a decent exercise for these muscle groups, but there are superior movements:
Back: Bentover Rows, Chin Ups & Pulldowns.
Hamstrings: Romanian Deadlifts, Lying leg curls & Stiff Legged Deadlift.
Butt/ Quads: Squats, Hip thrusts & Leg Presses.
These exercises train those muscle groups for their a) specific anatomical function, b) stress those muscles through their full range of motion, and c) provide a much longer time under tension compared to the conventional deadlift.
To Get Stronger?
The body is capable of deadlifting a shit ton of weight (more so than other compound movement), true that.
But strength goes beyond how heavy you lift off the floor. Getting “stronger” can be achieved with any properly coached movement; being able to jump higher, run faster, toss further, curl heavier, curl more reps, curl with fuller range of motion equates strength gain (I’m a big fan of curls).
A beef I have with the conventional deadlift: The movement subjects everyone to liff off 211mm (bar height from floor), which makes no sense for a 6’6″ basketball player who has piss poor deadlift leverages compared to a 5’8″ soccer player (thus the superiority of romanian, stiff legged deadlift in my opinion, in this case).
The shorter athlete with better success in the lift would be deemed stronger compared to the taller athlete but we’re not only comparing unjustly, but fitting everyone into a preset mold.
Just because we are designed to mechanically lift heavy off the floor, it shouldn’t be viewed as a be all end all for strength gain. Specificity matters a lot for strength gain and it that’s when question #2 can perhaps help: “What do I need to get stronger for?”
If your goal is to get stronger in deadlift for the purpose of powerlifting, the conventional deadlift, lifted off the floor in a dead (paused) position, is the KING for that goal. However, if your goal isn’t solely powerlifting related, not so much.
Specificity matters and I encourage everyone to discover that.
You don’t have to go extremely heavy
To my knowledge, the meteoric rise of deadlifts came with the meteoric rise of Powerlifting.
Which is amazing: Periodization, accessory lifts, activation exercises, mobility work, proper technique (questionable) are all brought into the spotlight.
Unfortunately, it came along with the meteoric rise of meatheads slamming sissy heavy weights; I’m sure we’ve all seen the beginner who lifts one rep, with said rep taking more than 5 seconds, with form that resembles a fishing rod.
Don’t get me wrong. For advanced powerlifters, heavy singles or triples have their place in training. But it shouldn’t be something you do 4 times a week if you’ve merely been deadlifting for 2 weeks.
Benefits from the exercise can still be derived from much lower intensities at higher repetitions (4 to 6), which is 32894324x better, especially for beginners.
4 sets of 6 reps for 24 total reps facilitates learning better than 6 sets of 1 rep, even more so if you’re executing the movement with proper form with a more manageable weight.
I don’t find many fitness maxims to be true, but in this case: Leave your ego at the door, the gym, your lower back, the commercial plates not designed for slamming will thank you for it.
The deadlift is not a squat
In the spirit of self contradiction, I want to highlight that the Deadlift is, hands down, an amazing all round exercise; I personally implement it as a movement every now and then for clients and myself for various purposes.
Here’s how you should be implementing it in your program:
Use proper form
Prescribing technique online is always tricky, but the main takeaway to work upon:
- Don’t round your lumbar spine (lower back).
- Don’t overarch your lumbar spine.
These 2 tips alone will significantly reduce your risk of going from zero to zero-er.
Get enough rest in between sets
Let’s all agree that proper technique is important in all exercises.
But when you’re putting your spine in the hands of a cold, rusty, heartless 140kg bar, it’s no joking matter.
Things can potentially turn out real TEARrible.
Thus, getting proper rest in between heavy (near maximal) sets is CRUCIAL to ensure you’re ready for your next set: fresh enough to maintain proper form for your target reps.
A blanket recommendation would be to take between 2 to 4 minutes of rest, but longer is not uncommon with heavier weights (1 to 3 rep maxes).
Lower your rep range
Deadlifts are i’ll suited for high reps (with sufficient intensity, I wouldn’t recommend going above 6, the benefits tend to diminish and the risk of injury heightens as set fatigue builds up).
If hypertrophy is your goal, volume would be the main driver. In that case, the romanian deadlift and stiff-legged deadlift would suit better, and provide a decent carryover to the conventional deadlift, too.
A Dead End
Fact: Deadlift = great exercise. Not the “best exercise”.
I’m not sure if any exercise that can take the throne.
In a similar vein, there is no MUST DO exercise. Exercise selection is contextual and arguably adaptive to help you do what you want to do and look how you want to look.
A handy question that helps provide direction in the sea of exercises that exist: “What is my training goal?” Answering this question very specifically is the first step to tailoring a training program that fits you best.
That said, I’m a big fan of implementing deadlifts to introduce an increase in training intensity, especially for clients who’ve been holding themselves back from adding weights to the bar. This somehow teaches them to ramp up intensities in other exercises, a good way to introduce the concept of progressive overload: the most crucial yet underappreciated aspect of strength and muscle gain.
P.s., I’m “ramping up” my activity on YouTube, where I’ll post a combo of fitness related videos + random shenanigans! If you’re a fan of either, do subscribe to my YouTube channel HERE! Thanks a million!